Friday, December 22, 2017

My Favorite Middle Grade Books of 2017

There were seriously so many awesome middle grade books that came out this year! Although I sadly couldn't get to them all (if only), there were still quite a few I read that I loved. Below, in no particular order, a few of my favorites from 2017. Keep an eye out for a future post of the middle grade reads that I'm most looking forward to in 2018!

My Favorite Reads


The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh (published September 2017)
This was one of my favorite overall reads of the year. I loved the sensitive main character, Bea, as she navigated middle school, changing friendships, and understanding how to be yourself when all kinds of circumstances are pulling you in different directions. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy honest, introspective books that deal with emotions in a realistic way. 

Paper Chains by Elaine Vickers (published October 2017)
This book is a follow-up to Like Magic, telling the story of a character from that book as she moves to a new town and has a new best friend. Both girls have secrets and make assumptions that get in the way of their friendship, but they also go through amazing growth to learn how to be brave for one another and for themselves. A lovely book that confronts serious issues of families splitting up and adoption without sacrificing that brutal kid honest that makes a story ring true.

See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng (published February 2017)
I think this book was another star of 2017, and will definitely resonate with anyone who loved Carl Sagan's Cosmos as a kid. This book follows a precocious kid named Alex, who wants to win a rocket building contest and ends up on a bigger journey with his dog, Carl Sagan, than he initially anticipated. The book is told through recordings that Alex is making for possible alien lifeforms who may discover his "golden iPod", making for a unique storytelling device as well as a quick read, as it is largely dialog. Still, Cheng manages to incorporate some gut wrenching emotional moments as Alex deals with living with a parent who has issues that he doesn't understand, and living without a deceased father that he knows little about. A funny but insightful read.

Other Notable 2017 Releases

To be honest, so many awesome middle grade books came out this year that I can't really include them all, but here are a few that I feel should be getting a bit more buzz.

The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez (published August 2017)
Confession: when I was in middle school, I totally made zines and listened to punk music and scoffed at all things that I considered suburban and lame, so this book really speaks to me. A lovely, light book about self-expression, figuring out your identity, and determining what it means to feel like you "belong".

It All Comes Down to This by Karen English (published July 2017)
It's 1965 and Sophie has just moved to Los Angeles, where she finds herself on of the few African-American kids in an almost exclusively white neighborhood. Karen English blends the realism of growing up and dealing with shifting family dynamics and being the new kid, along with the historical events of the Watts Riots. A slower paced read that focuses more on the main character and her inner life that will appeal to historical fiction lovers.

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar (published April 2017)
Inspired by the author's actual experiences growing up in 1960's New York City, this book follows Ruthie, a Cuban-Jewish immigrant who navigates a new culture, a new language, and a horrific car accident. A realistic, inter-sectional book for readers who appreciate character growth and inclusive storytelling.

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend (published October 2017)
And to balance out all of those realistic reads, a bit of magic. Morrigan Crow is fated to die when she turns eleven, but is instead swept away to a magical land by the mysterious Jupiter North for a chance to join the Wundrous Society. This imaginative, wonderful story will definitely draw in fantasy lovers who are Harry Potter fans or fans of other inventive worlds like those of Neil Gaiman. Plus it's always good to mix it up with a bit of the fantastic when reading all of these emotional middle grade books!

Side note: can we take a moment appreciate how awesome the cover art for all of these books is??? I love that middle grade is leading the charge for beautiful, engaging cover art. Anyway, that's all for now from me. I'll be assembling a few other best of 2017 lists for young adult and adult fiction, so keep a look out for future posts. 

Until then, happy reading!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: The Science of Unbreakable Things by Tae Keller

Title: The Science of Unbreakable Things
Author: Tae Keller
Genre: Realistic Middle Grade
Release Date: March 2018
Rating: 5/5 Stars

I feel incredibly lucky that the past few books that I've read have been super good, and The Science of Unbreakable Things by Tae Keller thankfully did not break the pattern. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I couldn't really write a review right away, I had to take a little while to process what I liked so much about this book. Basically, it follows seventh grader Natalie via the science log book that her teacher, Mr. Neely, has his class keeping for the school year. Natalie is smart, but can't really connect with science at the moment because she's distracted by the fact that her mother won't get of bed or go to work, and her father, a therapist who loves talking about feelings, won't tell her what's going on. Luckily, Natalie has her best friend Twig, who is unapologetically weird but a loyal friend nonetheless, and a possible new friend in Dari, the class science whiz. Mr. Neely suggests that Natalie compete in an egg drop competition for her year long project, and Twig and Dari get drawn into her plan to use the egg drop money to do something for her mom that she thinks will bring her old self back.

Needless to say, this book gives you all the feels. It's wonderfully written and some parts are so true I couldn't help but connect with Natalie. Her father is half Korean, but he isn't very interested in his heritage, often dismissing his Korean mother's cooking or traditions. Natalie, meanwhile, longs to connect with this side of herself. She mentions that she feels like she's not a very good Asian because she doesn't know much about her Korean background, and as someone who is half-Asian, I thought that her feelings about being multiracial rang incredibly true. This book is full of all sorts of little moments of honesty that I feel that readers of all ages could connect with. It also deals with depression in sensitive but truthful way, as well as emphasizing the importance of having a support network when you are dealing with mental illness, either first hand or through a loved one. This debut book really won me over and I would recommend it to readers of books like See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng, who enjoy realistic middle grade that is at times funny, at times sad, but always completely sincere.

Accurate depiction of me reading this book.
This book is definitely a must-read when it comes out next March, and I'm straight up loving all of the STEM-centered stories that have been coming out in the middle grade world. I'm working on doing a post on my favorite middle grade reads of 2017, since I've been reading a lot in that genre, as well as the new releases I'm most looking forward to in 2018. Stay tuned for more middle grade in future posts!

Note: I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Review: The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

Title: The Belles
Author: Dhonielle Clayton
Genre: Fantasy/Young Adult
Release Date: February 2018
Rating: 5/5 stars

The Belles is a rich, engrossing fantasy story set in a French-inspired nation called Orléans, where Beauty is a goddess to be worshipped and blessed beings known as the Belles bestow her beauty amongst the rest of society. In the creation myth of this world, humans were cursed after Beauty was accused of caring for them too much, and they were turned into the Gris, with gray skin and devoid of traditional marks of beauty. The story follows Camellia, who is just graduating from her Belle upbringing to begin working to make people beautiful. Camellia is a sort of over-achiever, and longs to be the favorite of the royal family and be stationed as the official palace Belle. However, she finds that life at court is not what she thought it would be, and she's faced with choosing between following the strict rules of society and being an agreeable Belle, or finding what she truly believes in and standing up for herself.

How I pictured the world, except with less white people
What I loved about this book was definitely the beautifully imagined world that Dhonielle Clayton created. Every detail is richly described, and I was immediately transported into the world. The world-building was excellent, and the magic system, known as the Belle's arcana, was unique and well-done. The Belles is not a particularly short book, but it's highly addictive and definitely draws the reader in with its' beautifully rendered world, high-stakes drama, and strong, kind heroine, Camellia, as well as the supportive side characters such as her sister Belles and her servant, Bree. There are a lot of complicated women in this story, which makes it even more interesting. At times I thought that the villain was a little much (think Marie Antoinette meets Joffrey from Game of Thrones), but her actions didn't hinder the storytelling at all. Overall, an excellent start to the series and I can't wait to see how these characters evolve as the story continues!

Note: I received this book as an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review: Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann

Title: Let's Talk About Love
Author: Claire Kann
Genre: Contemporary Romance/Young Adult
Release Date: January 2018
Rating: 4/5 stars

This book has been getting quite a bit of buzz on book Twitter as the lead is black, female, and biromantic asexual, which is not typical of the leads of most romance books. I thought the premise itself sounded interesting (I always love a good contemporary romance), and once I saw the cover, I was sold. Let's Talk About Love follows Alice, who is nineteen and a sophomore in college, right after her girlfriend breaks up with her because of the lack of sex in their relationship. Alice hasn't exactly come out as asexual to the world (only her two best friends, who are also dating, know), and she fears that she'll never find the romance that she craves because of who she is. Shortly afterwards, she meets Takumi, who is beautiful and kind and understanding, and she begins to question what she wants out of a relationship and if Takumi might be the one for her.

At its' core, this book is a romance but it's also a whole lot more. Alice is not only dealing with relationship stuff, but she's also struggling with her identity in other ways; she worries that her friendships won't survive adulthood, she struggles with the career path that her parents want her to follow versus discovering what she's truly passionate about, and she's still trying to figure out how to adult and be a good person. Meanwhile, Alice remains funny and endearing (despite her faults) and goes through some real growth throughout the story. The characters are bit older than most in YA romances (her love interest has just finished getting his teaching credential, and her best friends are planning to get married), but I think many teens enjoy reading about characters who are a few years older than them but who still haven't figured out who they are and who they want to be. Let's Talk About Love is a really good balance of squee-worthy romance and some coming-of-age character development. Definitely recommended, especially for readers who enjoyed Maurene Goo's I Believe in a Thing Called Love or who are looking for some diverse rep in their contemporary romances.

Note: I received an advanced reader copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Monday, August 28, 2017

How to Recover From a Reading Slump!

It's been a few months since I've posted anything, and a large part of that is because the reading slump is real, y'all. Also, life stuff: I quit my librarian job, moved to L.A., and am starting a new librarian job shortly, so basically time for reading has been cut short. I spent a lot of the summer apartment hunting, packing up all of my worldly belongings (including many, many books), relocating, and job hunting. Luckily the job hunting part has panned out so I can take a break from writing cover letters and resumes and get back to reading and, hopefully, blogging about books. And, since I had such a long summer with barely any books read and Goodreads is yelling at me for being behind my goal, I thought I would share my thoughts on the infamous reading slump and how, hopefully, to recover from said slump.

What is a Reading Slump?

What booknerds dread most, the reading slump, is when you either don't have time to read anything or you aren't motivated to start a new read or you just can't get through a single book to save your life. For those of us who love learning about new worlds, reveling in transportive storytelling, or contemplating the human experience through our love of books, the reading slump is like anti-self care. I always feel a bit off when I haven't read a book that I've enjoyed in awhile, like something is missing. I'm a little grouchy, I feel less motivated overall, and I can feel the stress levels in my body rising. Personally, I like reading because it is my me-time, it is my self-care, and when I don't get to set that time aside for myself, I feel the negative impact throughout my daily life.

Typically, I read about 10-12 books a month. I don't say this to brag about how many books I read, but basically to explain the only way I can make it through my TBR (which is constantly growing), keep up with new releases, and revisit old favorites. I also read lots of different kinds of books that range in length, format, and time investment, so I try to set aside as much reading time possible and make it a priority so I can read the wide variety of books that make me happy. For a bit of perspective in how my summer reading slump has gone, in June I only read 5 books, and in July I only read 3. Books I borrowed from the library and was excited about languished on my shelf. My Book of the Month books, which are awesome new releases that I was super stoked to read, were packed up in boxes. The last book I finished in July was Bitch Planet: Vol. 2 and I just didn't feel motivated to start anything new, despite having a Kindle full of unread books. It was not a good feeling. But in August, after I started getting settled in my new city, I worked my way out of my funk.

Tips for Getting Over It

Tip #1: Read an audiobook

I fully embrace audiobooks as being the same as traditionally reading a book, and honestly think it's a bit ableist to say that it is somehow lesser to listen to a narrator rather than read the print or e-book yourself. You are still investing your time and interest in the story, and that is the most important part of reading in my opinion. An audiobook really helped me get out of my reading slump because as I was unpacking and cleaning my new apartment, I could still read and get done what I needed to get done. The book I chose was The Eyre Affair, because I had listened to an audiobook by the narrator before and really liked her narration style, and I knew it was kind of a light, fun book that would be perfect to read while doing chores. And I finished it! It was one of the first books I finished in August.

Tip #2: Pick up genre fiction

Some readers only read genre fiction and some readers read none but if you are in a reading slump, I highly recommend picking up a fast-paced mystery or romance to get your reading gears turning as opposed to, say, slogging through a 19th century classic to get yourself back into reading. In August, I read Radio Silence by Alyssa Cole (love her writing and, hello, apocalyptic romance) and A Crafty Killing by Lorraine Bartlett (it's got crafts, it's got murder, it's got it all), and both books really helped me get back into my reading groove. Usually romances and mysteries read quickly because you want to find out what happened next, so they are good motivators for taking time to read and finishing a book. I stuck to two books that were a bit shorter in length, as well, because when I finish a book it motivates me to read another.

Tip #3: Read a book that you've seen the movie version of already

Sometimes I get distracted starting a new book if I can't visualize the setting or the characters, and I start checking out. However, if I read a book that I've seen the movie version of, I have a starting place and I can start to focus more on the story and the character development. I already know what is going to happen, but I can immerse myself in the detail that the book can provide that the movie just can't. In my case, I read The Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan, having already seen the Sofia Coppola-directed film version and really enjoying it. Being able to read the book and think about the differences between the book and the film, and reading not to find out what happens next but to really get to know the characters, was a good start for helping me get over my reading slump.

Tip #4: Find your niche and go with it

Every reader has their special book catnip; find the book that ticks all your boxes and dive in! Personally, I love academia, history, and the occult, so I picked up the book The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark on a whim and ended up devouring it, and its' sequel. The book includes all of the things I love; the main character is a professor, there's witches, there's faeries, there's a hot incubus and steamy love scenes, and it takes place in a remote, small town on the East Coast. These things helped immerse me in a world that is so unlike my own that it really sucked me in and made me stick with the book from start to end. So whatever you are into, whether it's historical fiction set with strong female leads or books with werewolf detectives or stories about generational families dealing with their pasts, find that book and take an afternoon to dedicate your time to it. If you're not sure how to find that book, go to your local library and ask a librarian to help you, or check out the different Listopia collections on Goodreads, or even turn to Twitter and ask your fellow readers if they have a recommendation. There is a book for everyone, and if you find one that can appeal to your interests, you'll be more likely to dedicate the time you need to read it.

Tip #5: Don't let the Goodreads Reading Challenge bring you down

I admit that seeing that I am 9 books behind my challenge stresses me out a little bit. Nonetheless, I don't take that little meter too seriously. Reading is more than just completing a challenge; it's about finding books that speak to you and connecting with the story or the information contained within them. So if you are in a reading slump, don't worry about your reading challenge or whatever other challenges you started at the beginning of the year. Just bring it back to basics and start off slow; read because you enjoy it, not because it is something that you "have to" do.

Now go forth, and read!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

May Reading Re-Cap

For some reason, May is always the month when my reading kicks into high gear. It also helps to start reading a series that has tons of books in it so that I can just keep reading and requesting the next book in the series from the library. Basically, in May I read a good amount of books but none of them were particularly heavy or intense like some of the books I read last month, and they were a good palate cleanser as I plan to dive into some more serious works in June. Below, a wrap-up of my reading in May!

Historical Mystery 
So I kind of lost my mind reading the Lady Emily mysteries in May. I had added the first book, And Only to Deceive to my TBR list long ago and randomly decided to read it after reading the second Veronica Speedwell book last month. I actually had planned to read the Lady Julia Grey mysteries by Deanna Raybourne but the hold list was longer so I ended up with this book instead. And I was instantly hooked! In book one, Lady Emily Ashton is an intelligent, curious woman in Victorian England who recently lost her husband while he was on a hunting trip with his friends, and is now navigating life as a widow in London. Emily barely knew her husband before they married, and he died so soon after they wed that she didn't feel much remorse for him, until she begins reading his journals and learning more about his inner life. She becomes immersed in Classical studies, her husband's former passion, and begins to enjoy the independence she has a wealthy, titled widow. She eventually falls into solving mysteries, and the subsequent books in the series take Emily from England and France to Turkey and Greece, and they are overall excellent escapist novels filled with rich atmosphere, unique characters, and engaging mysteries. They have mixed reviews on Goodreads but I can't help but love them. I really enjoy Tasha Alexander's writing style and feel very protective of Lady Emily. Book 6 is on my Kindle currently, waiting to be read.

Historical Romance 
In May, I wanted to get caught up with my Historical Romance Challenge, and read a good range of romances, including a pirate romance which was one of the categories to fill! That book, Scandalous Desires, sadly did not work for me and it was actually the lowest rating I've given to a book this year! I feel kind of bad because I know that everyone loves the Maiden Lane series, but I just could not get into it and I think pirates are just not for me. Lady in Disguise was also kind of a meh book for me, although the initial premise is intriguing: an upperclass woman whose family has fallen on hard times after her parents' death turns to disguising herself as a highwayman and robbing her rich neighbors to support her sisters, then accidentally robs her teenage sweetheart who has just returned to the village and happens to be super rich and handsome. Unfortunately the characters just didn't draw me in. I did enjoy A Talent for Trickery, however, which featured an ex-thief heroine helping a private investigator hero solve a series of coded letters that may be connected to her deceased father, who was an infamous thief as well as police informant. Cold-Hearted Rake was also pretty good, as Lisa Kleypas' writing is always beautiful and her stories well-crafted. I wasn't super in love with the heroine in the book, though, and didn't enjoy it quite as much as the books I've read by her in the past.

Contemporary Romance
I read Songs of Our Breakup and Haven as part of the Contemporary Romance Challenge, and enjoyed both of them! I now need to pick up some of Rebekah Weatherspoon's backlist because I loved her writing style and her characters, and will probably read the other books in Jay E. Tria's Playlist series as well. Overall, I enjoyed the contemporary romances I read in May quite a bit more than the historical ones.

Graphic Novel 
I finally read the first volume of the trade edition of Bitch Planet and I really liked it. I loved the art and overall style; I've seen the artist Valentine De Landro speak at last year's Book Riot Live, and he was awesome, so I knew I had to pick this series up eventually. I don't read a lot of graphic novels, although I loved them when I was a teen. I thought the characters were really cool and I would love to see this as a television series, as long as producers don't ruin it, which is often the case in TV adaptations. I just thought this title was super relevant to the times and if you haven't picked it up but like feminist works with retro throwbacks, this is a must-read.

Summer Reading
Now that June has begun and it is officially Summer Reading season, I'm planning to switch up my reading life a bit and add in more literary fiction and contemporary fiction. I definitely go through reading phases and, with all of the genre fiction I read this past month, need to mix it up a bit as summer begins. Basically May was kind of a junk food array of books and I want to focus more on books that may not read as quickly but that have a lot of impact. At the same time, I'm (as usual) super behind on my reading challenges and still have some TBR catch-up to do. In summer, however, I like to let my mood guide my reading and not take things too seriously. What are you planning to read this summer? Let me know in the comments below!

Happy reading!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Review: The Darkness Knows by Cheryl Honigford

Title: The Darkness Knows
Author: Cheryl Honigford
Genre: Mystery
Release Date: August 2016
Rating: 4/5 stars
Although I’m not a big mystery reader, I am a big fan of 1930’s film noir and detective stories, so when I learned about The Darkness Knows, which centers on a radio star in 1938 Chicago solving a mystery, I knew I had to pick it up. If you’re a fan of old-school detective stories but yearn for a female lead, this book does not disappoint. Vivian Witchell, a rising star at a Chicago radio station, is trying to make it in the industry and find independence from her life of wealth and privilege. Meanwhile, a murder, a mysterious fan note, and a handsome P.I. interrupt her career path and turn her into a makeshift sleuth. Vivian works with Charlie Haverman, the P.I. consultant on her detective serial radio show, to solve the murder of a well-known but not well-liked colleague at the radio station. In an industry where would-be stars will do anything to get ahead, there seem to be enemies everywhere, but Vivian is smart, capable, and observant, making her an excellent amateur sleuth. I also appreciated that Vivian wasn’t a prude or judgemental about sex, which I always enjoy in a leading character.  

Besides Vivian’s plucky attitude and strong personality, I also enjoyed Charlie’s character. He’s tough, but is willing to listen to Vivian’s feedback and ideas. He also appreciates that she’s a modern woman and not looking to dumb herself down to appeal to a man, and he has the tough guy appeal without coming off as an alphahole. I found him to be an appealing lead, and was rooting for him and Vivian to get together in the end. This book, the first in a series, is subtitled a Viv and Charlie Mystery, so hopefully I can look forward to future sleuthing with this likeable pair.

In addition to the well-written leads, the side characters were also a lot of fun to read about. There were some of the stereotypical noir-ish characters, but I enjoy that; the femme fatale, the dashing but fame-obsessed male lead, and everyone has a mysterious past. I did think that Viv’s best friend, Imogene, could have gotten a little more screen time and been fleshed out more. She seemed like an important part of Viv’s life, but we barely got to know her. This book does take place over a relatively short period of time, however, so that may be why.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere of 1930’s Chicago really came through in the storytelling. The author clearly did her research, and you could easily visualize the places that the characters visited. If you are a fan of The Thin Man series or any late 1930’s films, you could easily picture the clothing and the glitzy nightclubs, plus the seedy Chicago backstreets as well. Chicago played a big role in the appeal of the story, and the reader is rooted in that era throughout the story. Overall, this lends a light, escapist tone to The Darkness Knows, and I could easily see this being developed into a television show a la Miss Fisher’s Mysteries.

As far as the mystery aspect goes, I admit that I haven’t read a lot of mysteries (unless you count Nancy Drew books as a child), so maybe I’m a little easier to please than die-hard mystery fans. There were some good twists to the mystery, and good pacing to keep the excitement level up, but I did think that the mystery would have been much simpler to solve if a few characters (not naming names) had spoken up and connected the dots a bit earlier. Plus, Vivian seemed to be telling everyone anything and maybe shouldn’t have revealed all of her cards to so many people. It seems like more could have been done to complicate the mystery while still making it believable and readable. Still, any flaws with the mystery aspect didn’t take away from how much fun I had reading this story. If you need a book that is escapist and engrossing, I definitely recommend The Darkness Knows, and look forward to reading the second installment at the end of the year!